In 1995 I thought I knew what a Mario game was. Run left to right (or maybe bottom to top). Jumping on things. Eating mushrooms to grow up. Fly, sometimes. You know the drill. Than Yoshi’s Island came by and showed that Mario games can be about much more than that.
Yes, you still ran through levels and jumped on things, but in countless ways Yoshi’s Island expanded on the Mario formula it felt like a brand new game. Yoshi went from an occasional helper in Super Mario World to a permanently verifiable character in Yoshi’s Island, tasked with protecting a nearly helpless Baby Mario riding on his back. With Yoshi’s oversized tongue, players can slurp enemies and transform them into projectile eggs that can be fired in any direction. What used to be a run-and-jump series was now a run-and-jump-and-slurp-and-shoot game, and the Yoshi’s Island designers built levels that perfectly capitalized on these new skills.
But the real key to Yoshi’s Island‘s profession, for me, is the flutter jump. If you continue holding the jump button after the peak of Yoshi’s bow, he’ll kick his feet in the air to slow his descent first, then float back up, reaching a new, slightly higher peak. If you have enough height, you can flutter several times before finally floating to the ground. This new feature added a crucial extra bit of post-jump precision to the standard Mario jump, and provided many platforming challenges that required changes in air direction or extra-long flutter jumps. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never played Yoshi’s Island how? Turn right it feels like following a series of smooth, perfect turns through the air with a well-timed sequence of flutter jumps.
Then there’s the way the game looks. Mario games have always been bright and colorful, but Yoshi’s Island brought a hand-drawn aesthetic that truly captured the game’s sense of childlike wonder. From the soft pastel backgrounds to the stark black outlines of the primary colored characters and enemies, there’s a tiny bit of imperfect slop in the visual design that’s more reminiscent of a primary school student’s dream world than a pixelated game system.
Many people don’t realize that the 2D sprites in Yoshi’s Island were supported by a version of the polygon-pushing Super FX chip – the same that enabled early 3D SNES games, such as star fox and Stunt Race FX† This allowed for massive bosses that could stretch, twist and move with a smoothness unknown in games at the time, but also provide more subtle effects, such as the way Yoshi’s head squeezes a little bit when he hits it against the ceiling. The Super FX powered character animation has a level of detail that makes the characters appear much more alive than the keyframe animation of previous Mario games.
Avoiding enemies is still important in Yoshi’s Island, but getting hit once or twice isn’t usually an instant death like in previous Mario games. Instead, you can just quickly recapture the floating Baby Mario and continue the level. It’s a significant change for a game that marks a sort of transition point from the simpler “coming to the end without dying” Mario games that previously came to titles that were more focused on exploration and secondary objectives.
Yoshi’s Island has no time limit, allowing players to search for the five giant flowers and 20 hidden red coins in each level to their heart’s content. Finding these bonuses isn’t necessary to beat the game, but looking for a perfect score on each level provides a great excuse to go back and really explore every nook and cranny of the excellent, puzzle and secret level design. absorb. Additionally, finding all the secrets on each level unlocked a series of six extra hard bonus stages. You know a game is good when you are excited that the reward for playing well is getting more levels to play.
That’s because each new level in Yoshi’s Island showed more originality and imagination than the whole of many other platform games of the day. There are hostile monkeys spitting watermelon seeds at Yoshi and trying to run away with Baby Mario. There are gigantic, screen-filling Chain Chomps trying to chase Yoshi (before they inevitably fall and break a tooth on a cement block). There are items to turn Yoshi into vehicles ranging from a helicopter to a submarine. There is a spike-proof dog that serves as a barely controllable means of transportation. There’s the infamous level where Yoshi gets high (sorry, “dizzy”) by breathing in floating spores. You never know what to expect when you unlock a new level in Yoshi’s Islandand that anticipation of new content will keep you going at least as good as anything else.
The magic of Yoshi’s Island proves difficult to recover. I will never forget the feeling of disappointment I felt when I bought it Yoshi’s story on the N64 to realize it was a pale, simplified shadow of the game that inspired it. Years later, Yoshi’s Island DS did its best to expand on the SNES classic, but everything from the controls to the level design felt a little off. The Game Boy Advance re-release of the original Yoshi’s Island is arguably the ultimate version of the game, with six new unlockable stages that feel perfectly integrated into the bigger picture.
The radical experiments of Yoshi’s Island holds up astonishingly well, even nearly two decades after its initial release, and stands as a testament to how even the most well-known and beloved series can be successfully adapted and expanded.